Lately I’ve fallen down one of those rabbit holes of inquiry so common among readers. Sometimes they can be a bad thing, right? You go slip sliding away from whatever it is you’re focused on and within a bare few minutes your attention has gone careening like a pinball from one topic to another. Usually this kind of destructive activity can be traced directly to the internet. You click onto Google to look up a fact, and the next thing you know you’re buying a pair of sandals from QVC.
Sometimes, thought, the rabbit hole is a good and true thing, a shower of creative sparks skyrocketing inside your brain, making your fingers itch for a pen or a QWERTY keyboard so you can capture some of them before the shine goes dim.
I’m happy to say, that’s the kind of rabbit hole I’ve been living in for the past few days.
It all started with a re-read of Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing, a book I keep going back to whenever I want to kick start my own writing motor. Shapiro talks about the writer’s Work, and quotes poet Donal Hall’s book Life Work - another book I return to time and again. I go to my shelves and pull out my copy. It falls open immediately to the passage Shapiro quoted, a passage I’ve not only underlined but copied out on the 4 x 6 index card I use as a bookmark.
“The best day begins with waking early. I check the clock: damn! it’s only 3:00 am. - because I want so much to get out of bed and start working. Usually something particular beckons joyously - like a poem that I have good hope for, that seems to go well. By 4:30 I can wait no longer. I leap out of bed, feed the cat, let the dog out, start the coffee which is timed for five but can be persuaded of an early start, dress, drive two miles for the Globe, carry a cup of coffee to Jane, read the paper while I eat a blueberry bagel, then finish my breakfast with skim milk, an apple, and a small peanut butter sandwich. I wake as I eat, drink, and read the paper. As I approach the end of the Globe, saving the sports section for last, I feel work-excitement building, joy-pressure mounting - until I need resist it no more but sit at the desk and open the folder that holds the day’s beginning, its desire and its hope. Then I lose myself. In the best part of the best day, absorbedness occupies me from footsore to skulltop. “
Hall’s discourse on the minutiae of his morning might seem eccentric, but scratch the surface of any writer (or other creative person) and I’m willing to bet you’ll find a similar set of ritualistic behaviors to start the work day. I certainly have mine. And I’m sorry to say it doesn’t take much to put me off course. A text message. The puppy makes a mess. A chat with a neighbor on the morning walk. An email. Facebook, the worst of all offenders. If I let myself open that browser, I am like an alcoholic taking that first drink after a long dry spell. I can’t stop, even though I can feel my focus spiral down the drain. I find myself yearning to be in Hall’s timeline - a time of reading newspapers, listening to baseball games on the radio, dictating manuscripts for a typist who lived down the road, and writing dozens of letters to friends daily.
Hall wrote Life Work in 1993. He was in his 60’s at the time, a prolific poet, essayist, teacher. The title of this book is just as telling in reverse - Work Life - work IS life to Hall. It is not drudgery as we so often think of it here in America with the attitude inherited from our Pilgrim ancestors, but joy. He couldn’t wait to get up and get to the page every morning. Couldn’t wait to indulge in the “work-excitement,” the “joy-pressure” that built up overnight.
He wrote (worked) right up until his death last year at the age of 89, publishing a book of essays about called A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing 90. I cannot imagine him succumbing to the modern digital distractions that poke and prod at me. Just this morning, tempted to click the shiny blue Facebook icon, I imagine Hall’s grizzled and bearded face and know he would laugh derisively.
I close the cover on my iPad and put it in the kitchen drawer.
Hall had his dry spells, it’s true. He occasionally had bouts of depression: “I remember lying alone in bed smoking cigarettes, reading the cracks in the ceiling; for two years of middle life, my private life was a mess and I wrote no poems; depression rolled like the waves of mid-ocean day after day after day.” He suffered several epodes of serious cancers. Ironically, he survived them all but his beloved wife, poet Jane Kenyon, developed leukemia in her early forties, and died at the age of 45. It took years to recover his joy in work after her death. “For five years my days were dominated by her absence,” Hall wrote in the forward to a new edition of Life Work published in 2003. “Grief has a life of its own and its own work to do. It is born howling, it labors, it grows old.” But at age 74, he finds he can “go to bed again looking forward to getting up in the morning - to black coffee, to newspaper, to life and to work.”
I wrote last week of finding myself in a wilderness time, and I wrote about it then because I could begin to feel myself coming out, was beginning to notice the first inklings of what Hall refers to as “joy-pressure,” a willingness, almost an eagerness to work. It comes concurrent with spring, as the natural world resurrects itself from the dormancy of winter. I have concerts ahead and have been learning music, finding the physical repetition of passages pleasant and absorbing. I have been writing each day on a book about grief, a book I have wanted to write for the past three years, and finding the study and thought oddly life-affirming.
Of course I don’t kid myself. I’m no Dani Shapiro or Donald Hall, nor will I ever be. Though I cannot match their talent or intellect, I can learn from their process and attitude. I can make absorbedness my goal. I can eschew the internet at least until I’ve done my own work, and the work will be better for it.
I can watch for the good rabbit holes that lead to thoughtful inspiration and purposeful activity.
Books referenced in this post:
Still Writing, Dani Shapiro
Life Work, Donald Hall
A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing 90, Donald Hall